Off to a slow start: PA legislative performance 2023

Volunteers and team leaders from Fair Districts PA gathered in Harrisburg on October 3 to introduce a new report on the progress of the Pennsylvania state legislature in the current legislative session.

At a press conference held in the Capitol Rotunda, volunteers from across the state convened to introduce Off to a slow start: PA legislative performance 2023, a follow-up to Fair District PA’s December 2022 Dysfunction by Design: Why Pennsylvania’s State Legislature Is So Unproductive …and How We Can Fix It. The new report covers the period of January to June. It provides data and narratives gathered by FDPA volunteers comparing this first quarter to other recent sessions and to legislative action in some of PA’s neighbor states.

The press conference opened with Tony Crocamo, FDPA speaker and Advocacy Advisor co-chair from Lancaster County. He explained the purpose for being at the Capitol: to report on the lack of effectiveness of this legislature during the first six months of the 2023–24 session; to describe the ways legislators still do not represent our best interests; and, to continue to advocate for efforts by the people of our state and by our legislators to Fix Harrisburg.

As Crocamo explained, the PA legislature is historically among the least effective in the nation in number of bills passed. This session is off to an even slower start than other recent sessions. Legislative rules give a handful of party leaders control over which bills are heard and which are ignored. This prevents the legislature from acting on numerous bipartisan proposals that would improve the lives of Pennsylvania citizens. Small rule changes in the House do not appear to have had much impact.

“We are not suggesting every bill of PA’s proposed legislation has merit. We are saying that there are bipartisan bills on issues of great importance to Pennsylvanians that are ignored in every session: property tax reform, school funding, regionalization of fire/rescue departments, a legislative gift ban, and, of course, redistricting reform.”

Jodi Reese, Advocacy Data Coordinator from Dauphin County, explained how FDPA’s team of research volunteers collects data from the General Assembly website. “It’s their data. When we begin to crunch the numbers, we don’t have an answer in mind. We are simply trying to answer questions about their performance.”

Questions the research team considered:

Reese described lack of collaboration between the chambers, and told the story of House Bill 479, an example of death by amendment. This began as a two-page bill to provide mileage reimbursement for ambulance service. After unanimously passing through House and Senate committees, it was altered — against House, Senate and PA Constitutional rules — with a 20-page amendment establishing a new school-voucher program. Ultimately, it failed to pass, leaving both issues unaddressed.

Duncan MacLean, a local leader from Lebanon County, began his greetings in Spanish, explaining his background in Cuba and Venezuela and desire to speak on behalf of his Hispanic neighbors. He explained:

“I joined Fair Districts 5 years ago because when you have lived outside the country, you can plainly see the peril to our democracy posed by gerrymandering and corruption. It’s like seeing our blue planet from …outer space — a clearer perspective. And because even around my own family’s Thanksgiving table, right here on earth, Americans seemed to be turning on each other.”

He also shared his experience helping to collect Fix Harrisburg petition signatures: “Everyone I’ve talked to shared two things in common: consternation over our lawmakers’ inaction on obvious solutions to their issues, and indignation that this inaction is due to rules that let any one of just six leaders unilaterally stop even widely supported bills like these in their tracks.”

The press conference concluded with Carol Kuniholm, FDPA Chair, thanking the volunteers who worked long hours on the research for this new report, and all those who gave their time this summer to collect petition signatures at events all over our commonwealth. She described her own experience gathering petition signatures and spoke of the anger she has encountered from citizens across the state over the PA state legislature’s inability to get important things done:

“For years, needed reforms that would restore the voice of the people have been blocked. That includes redistricting reform and important changes to legislative rules, but also reform of an arcane, unaccountable budget process; campaign finance reform; legislative gift bans. It also includes rules to address the conflicts of interest that allow committee chairs to work for the entities they govern, and rules to end the revolving door that ensures legislative leaders plush jobs when they leave here if they cater to their future employers.

“Until those reforms take place, the citizen anger level will continue to rise. The deep distrust will continue to grow. That’s dangerous for democracy.”

Legislators received a digital copy of the report in an email that morning. Several dozen FDPA volunteers also gathered that morning to hand deliver a paper copy to every legislative office, pausing to talk with legislators and staff when possible. Please read it yourself and share it again in an email to your own legislators.

A full transcript of speaker comments is available here.